Mitsuru Kawai is overseeing a return to the old ways at Toyota factories throughout Japan. Having spent 50 years at the Japanese automaker, Kawai remembers when manual skills were prized at the company and "experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything." Company CEO Akio Toyoda personally chose Kawai to develop programs to teach workers metalcraft such as how to forge a crankshaft from scratch, and 100 workstations that formerly housed machines have been set aside for human training.
The idea is that when employees personally understand the fabrication of components, they will understand how to make better machines. Said Kawai, "To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine." Lessons learned by the newly skilled workers have led to shorter production lines – in one case, 96percent shorter – improved parts production and less scrap.
Taking time to give workers the knowledge to solve problems instead of merely having them "feed parts into a machine and call somebody for help when it breaks down," Kawai's initiative is akin to that of Toyota's Operations Management Consulting Division, where new managers are given a length of time to finish a project but not given any help - they have to learn on their own. It's not a step back from Toyota's quest to build more than ten million cars a year; it's an effort to make sure that this time they don't sacrifice quality while making the effort. Said Kawai, "We need to become more solid and get back to basics."